Thursday, April 6, 2017

Hampshire Softball Gearing Up for a Three-Peat

Hampshire senior centerfielder Katy O'Connor.  Photo courtesy of Hampshire High School.
By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

WESTHAMPTON, Mass. - Brian McGan has never been one to offer up predictions. His Hampshire Regional softball team is equally inclined to follow in that trend.

When you happen to be one of the more elite programs in the state, there is no need for talk. In fact, Hampshire prefers to do its talking on the field, and it has done so quite nicely the past two years.
Last June, the Red Raiders defeated Tewksbury to capture their second straight Division 2 state championship. In 2015, they knocked off Reading to claim their first state crown.

With a new season about to start, the lingering question circulating around these parts is whether or not the Red Raiders will make it a three-peat. Obviously, having yet to play a game this season due to weather issues, it is much too early to tell. However, if you were a betting person, it may be wise not to bet against them.

Hampshire returns 5 starters, in addition to a couple of players who were brought up for the postseason. On the flip side, five players - each of whom left their foot prints within this program - have departed.

Among that talented group was pitcher Alexis Ferris. Now pitching at Nichols College, everyone agrees Ferris was the straw that stirred the drink for this team in each of the previous two seasons. Last year, all Ferris did was toss seven no-hitters, including a perfect game, while striking out 281.

"Alexis was our anchor," said senior centerfielder Katy O'Connor, also a basketball standout headed to Wesleyan. "We all knew that. We always felt comfortable whenever she pitched. Now we need to start over and get ready with our two new pitchers (junior Alana Mohan and sophomore Emily Halket). I don't know if either can pitch the same as Alexis, but I do know it will now make us that more steady in the field defensively so that we can give both of them the support they need."

O'Connor says in most cases Ferris was so dominant in mowing down opposing hitters inside the circle, the defense hardly broke a sweat.

"Losing Alexis is a big hit no doubt," McGan said. "We have two young pitchers coming in that have not experienced some of the things the returning players have experienced here. Are they going to get some of that experience? Absolutely they will."

McGan was inserted as head coach here during the tail end of the 2007 season. Since that time, Hampshire has qualified for the postseason every year under his watch. But the road to the state championship did not come without growing pains along the way. In 2009, 2012 and 2014 the Red Raiders fell just shy of making it to the title game, falling in the state semifinal round in each of those years.

But perseverance, persistence and a true belief in themselves and their abilities would pave the way for greater things to come shortly thereafter.

"I have had an incredible run ever since I started here," said McGan, "It all begins and ends with the players who have passed through here. You can be the best coach in the world, but if you don't have the players then you are not going to succeed."

McGan grew up in upstate New York, and was an exceptional baseball player who spent some time in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. No doubt McGan could've easily taken path towards coaching baseball. But a chance to coach both of his daughters (Ashlee and Danielle) was an opportunity he could not let pass by.
Hampshire senior third baseman Danielle McGan.  Photo courtesy of Hampshire High School.
Ashlee went on to play at Keene State. Danielle is a senior at Hampshire, and highly-regarded as one of the most-talented, all-around players state-wide, currently sporting a career batting average .434 with 74 RBIs. So what is it like to play for your father?

"He is very stringent on fundamentals and skills, which is obviously a very good thing," the younger McGan said. "He preaches to all of us not to focus on being a good individual player. He wants all of us to focus on how to play and work as a complete team in terms of how we swing the bat, how we play defensively and how we throw. He breaks everything down which has really helped turn us into such a strong team."

It will require the leadership of McGan, O'Connor as well as other veterans including Paige Sullivan, Madison Philbrook, Brie Bergeron and Justine Legowski, who will be called upon to transcend the younger players into the loop. But, if anyone thinks the Red Raiders are in a down cycle, they best re-evaluate that thinking process.

"We never go into a season thinking we are ever going to lose," said the elder McGan. "I've always tried to teach our kids how to win. If you lose, but play well, that is OK. But if you lose, and don't play well, then these girls will know it and figure out the reasons as to why that happened."

Don't shed a tear for Hampshire if you think the program is in a rebuilding faze. The Red Raiders are now at a level which they reload and not rebuild.

"This is still an experienced team in spite of the girls we have lost," stated McGan. "Now we just need to step it up a little more as far as pitching is concerned, because everyone knows pitching is the name of the game in softball. We feel that we are still very strong in terms of our line up.

"Most teams may have 3 or 4 very good hitters," McGan continued. "We have 6 very good hitters which is a huge plus. Unlike past years, we are focusing more on hitting and trying to develop an aggressive attitude at the plate and attempt to score as many runs as possible. We'll just see what happens."

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